Bravely Default

Bravely Default is an unfulfilling 30 hour game stretched out to 90+ hours. I’ll never play it again, because with the conceit of the later chapters, it already feels like I’ve played the game five times over now–more than I’ve played shorter games that I think are masterpieces. Shockingly, what we got was a director’s cut that came out in Japan over a year after Bravely Default’s original release, subtitled “For The Sequel” over there and “Where The Fairy Flies” here, and I say this is a shock because so many faults have gone unaddressed. Originally, it seems, this game had a less interesting battle system and UI problems, but any other changes seem to be appreciated-but-shallow conveniences that didn’t address any of the systemic issues. Claimed “revisions to the final chapters” must only refer to a few self-satisfied humor scenes and battle variations, which have done little to reduce my incredulity that those chapters passed any kind of approval process at all. I’ve seen free patches do more to fix a game than this re-release has.

Story
The heroes are essentially on a quest to awaken four crystals, and the evil bad forces of doom attempt to stop them. It’s obvious from Chapter 1 or so that there’s a twist coming, because the villains wouldn’t have bothered constantly dropping several vague-but-unsubtle remarks about how morality isn’t so black-and-white if they really just wanted to destroy the environment and invent computers or whatever. At the risk of spoiling a thing or two, as a group, they’re not evil: just criminally disorganized and stubborn as a contrivance, to the point that a man is willing to fight his own daughter to the death rather than bothering to explain to her that awakening all the crystals will break the seal on Exdeath (or whoever it is), which would have advanced the plot of the game by 6 chapters.

I just recently criticized this same problem in SMT4, but it’s even worse here in Bravely Default, because it’s a much more chatty and cutscene-heavy game, and things are dragged out far longer. If you read D.’s journal in Chapter 1 and didn’t quickly (A) identify its owner(s) and (B) surmise that there’s some time-travel or parallel-universe stuff happening, I feel bad for you, son. But there are holes: that Braev doesn’t have anything to say to Ringabel, for example, until late in the game, doesn’t make sense unless he’s just extremely inattentive, which is a bit hard to swallow.

The early chapters are dull because the characters are cliches and the story doesn’t leave the beaten track of “go to the elemental temples, solve a town’s problem, run through a bland maze-like area, and beat up a few jerks who represent the various jobs.” Mid-game, Chapter 5 or so, it gets slightly more interesting, because you earn a bit more tactical breadth with more passive abilities to equip and a few dozen jobs to switch between–plus I can never refuse a Groundhog Day time-loop plotline out-of-hand. But then you do the same thing in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 with getting to do any fun Bill Murray exploitation, and you have to wonder who signed off on such a stupid, cheap, lazy idea. Groundhog Day didn’t cut-and-paste its scenes. Time travel or parallel worlds could have worked: even SMT4 did something like that, and it worked by not actually being a cheap excuse to recycle content. The dungeons weren’t designed to creatively encourage revisits in the way that EO4’s were, either–they just added a few chests you couldn’t open until later in the game.

I had been excited to play the Steins;Gate writer’s take on a Final Fantasy classic, although I’m now learning slash remembering that the Final Fantasy games were pretty dull before the sixth. I suspect that while some of the journals I liked were written by Naotaka Hayashi, they were lazily left in their text form and shoehorned-in, and that he wasn’t involved in the cutscenes, because the journals sometimes contradict or fill holes that the longer, cruder cutscenes leave behind. For example, the “Vampire Gallery” notes, which accompany DeRusso’s castle cutscenes, might be quickly dismissed as just a few of the many random synopsis entries that aren’t worth reading, but turn out to answer a few extra questions and add a bit of mood and flavor to the proceedings.

Features, mechanics, and balance
While I found the occasional fight pretty challenging on Normal difficulty, there are a few broken features that I sometimes exploited and sometimes opted out of, at least some of which came new to this director’s cut. The first, which I exploited, is Abilink, which ties a character to somebody on your 3DS friends list, allowing you to use any skill they’ve learned from a class you’ve unlocked. Another, which I did not use, was friend summoning, which is fine if you want to overkill an early-game boss by about a million HP, and not so much if you dislike the “Gameshark experience”. Both of these cooperative features could’ve been locked to people within some level range of your own. For example, if I hadn’t been allowed to Abilink with someone who had a total of more than 50 job levels more than me on a character, my newbie character would not have been able to link with someone who had earned 336 job levels across 24 jobs. And this way, if you were playing in loose parallel with a friend, and you chose to prioritize a different set of jobs, you’d be able to help each other out only as long as your friend doesn’t grind for 8 hours while you sleep. As for summoning, it would be plenty generous to keep you from summoning a friend whose level was 20 above your own.

The third is Bravely Second, where you can save up combat interruptions by putting your 3DS to sleep for a while. I couldn’t resist using it a couple times, because it allows players to basically become Dio Brando, but after beating an early boss before it had a chance to act, I decided I’d taken it far enough. It’s for casual gamers: people who don’t power through the game will be much more likely to have the ability charged for their play session. But having not had the enthusiasm to play the game constantly until I finished it, I practically fell into the casual category myself, and usually had the ability charged when I played. According to an interview, it’s to encourage more players actually finish the game, but you know what else might’ve accomplished that? An original story that moved at a refreshing pace. Were I the designer, I’d never have included such an ability, but since it’s fun in a way, I’d have given the Time Mage a similar-feeling one to make up for it–like a passive, activated in uncommon, dire circumstances.

Fourth among these cheap features is the combined auto-battle and fast-forward options, which are certainly useful, but pretty much exactly the same as holding down a fast-forward key in an emulator–something I never doubted was a soft form of cheating when I used it in Mother 3 or old Pokemon ROMs to grind up a few levels in a minute’s time. If they didn’t want a boring grind, that’s admirable, but it would’ve been far more sensible to just design something that didn’t revolve around experience levels as a measure of power–in many games, you’re only as strong as your items, or your skills. Considering that Bravely Default actually does restrict jobs, magic spells, and summons by location (forcing you to advance past bosses before acquiring them), it would’ve been comparatively trivial to base the party’s entire power curve around these acquisitions, making the game grind-proof, its balance locked and fine-turned by the developers for a more tactical experience. SMT4, for example, had experience levels, but available demons and their skills were a much bigger influence on the overall power of your party, and you had to advance past bosses to access new demons.

Fifth is the ability to disable random encounters, like a Repel that lasts forever and works anywhere. It’s useful to turn enemies off when returning to a map for the fifth time that was tedious the first time you went through it. Especially once you are max level and money buys nothing. Usually I played through most areas with the random encounters turned up briefly to see all the enemies in the area, and then completely off while actually passing through the dungeons, and that generally worked fine. But it was a band-aid fix to bigger problems. They didn’t think it through. Now there’s no reason not to put a save on the final floor of the bonus dungeon, because if you die against the boss, you just have to walk all the way back up with random encounters turned off. There’s also no reason to not just start each battle at full health and MP like a Yasumi Matsuno game, since the system encourages you go all the way from the inn to the dungeon boss with random battles off anyway.

Apart from these poorly-implemented ideas, the game does a few things well, particularly in the middle of the game as mentioned before, when working out new job combinations is at its most rewarding. All the jobs have something neat to offer, and I tried a few silly things, like using white magic selectively to get my MP to a multiple of 10, earning a boost with the passive skill Zero, and then locking it at that number with the Free Lunch skill. But whatever I tried, it was ultimately far more effective to use boss-cheesing strategies found online, like using dragoon jumps repeatedly with agility-boosting items, so that no enemies could hit me. This was disappointing, but by the time I got to the Chapter 8 boss gauntlet, I was plenty bored enough to exploit it.

BP makes for an interesting system, although I think the best part about it is giving boss AI an excuse not to just spam their strongest attack every turn (and come to think of it, any Diablo-style generator/spender combo could be seen as a variation on the same concept). Since BP debt isn’t carried between battles, any battle you’re guaranteed to win within four turns can essentially be won immediately, by going into a meaningless debt. Trivializing any component of the game isn’t really ideal, so I’m not sure if it was ultimately a great idea, but overall, I’d say it was an idea worth trying.

The rest: music, dungeons, mini-games
While the game has some nice music, it’s overextended by the padded-out game, and I don’t even feel like finding any favorites to link to. Worse, the music interruptions that I mentioned driving me crazy in my EO4 review are also present here, and you get an irritating music-box theme whenever you check your menu from the overworld (but not while in town or in a dungeon, oddly). This needless song also plays whenever you read your journal or pop into Norende, the town-building mini-game. I tend to mute the volume whenever I have to spend more than a second in one of these places. Again: This is the updated version?

Norende is too simple to work as a long-term casual gameplay draw, and the time balance just can’t work for everybody–I had several shops maxed out before finishing Chapter 2 of the actual story. Certain special skills earned in Norende were made obsolete before I could even use them–why use Damage +10% when I already have unlocked +50%? If they’d really committed to it and made a town-building mode where you could name a bunch of shops and decide what goes where, it could’ve turned out really cool–even better, it could’ve been like rebuilding Luin in Tales of Symphonia. Instead, it’s a Facebook game, but it’s bad at that too, because the content dries up after a few days. To put it another way, it could’ve been a mode where you spend money to unlock the best items, or a mode that earns you money, but it’s neither: it’s a temporary diversion, necessary to get you stuff you might’ve started with. Your town delivers you some items every few hours or so, but it’s not that useful; the cool purchases aren’t affordable into much later in the game, so they might as well have been distributed across shops in later chapters.

The dungeons are boring and far too old-fashioned. The worst thing you can do in level design, I think, is to just make a literal maze instead of a lived-in space. I refuse to believe that anyone would quarter their troops in one of these buildings without knocking down dozens of pointless walls that only serve to lengthen trips to the bathroom by twenty minutes. Honestly, the overly-simple level design reminds me of Breath of Fire 2, and that’s one of my favorite JRPGs, but it has the excuse of coming out in 1992, and its tilesets also varied a lot more, anyway.

I found myself wishing I was playing Lufia 2 instead, even though that forgotten 1996 JRPG ought to feel more dated than a high-profile 2014 release. That was a game where you could shoot arrows and hookshots and things outside of combat, like a twist on A Link to the Past, where you’d enter turn-based combat after getting the jump on enemies, instead of having boring, invisible random battles. These are hallmarks of a more modern JRPG, like Tales of Symphonia. It also had really clever, difficult dungeon puzzles that I could barely wrap my child brain around. Why would anybody rather play an old Final Fantasy game?

Final thoughts
A summary of the little things I appreciated:

  • Any minor convenience that reduces the tedium of the traditional JRPG
  • A user interface that I rarely consciously thought about (something they apparently focused on in the re-release)
  • Variety of classes, some more useful than others, but not overtly unbalanced
  • Learning new skills and cross-pollinating, Final Fantasy Tactics-style
  • Naming special moves and having my characters say “Fuc’ you” to bypass censorship
  • The longer-form pieces of writing that were occasionally added to the journal
  • The painted background environments, though fewer of the environments were comprised of them than I would’ve liked
  • The BP brave/default system, which was bold, though not flawless
  • Voice acting (JP) was generally likeable
  • Writing was occasionally quite bleak and twisted in a way I appreciate and generally associate with Japanese indie writers; probably Naotaka Hayashi at work. Two children killing each other over the burnt corpse of a fairy, for instance
  • The big twist of the story is pretty fun, even if everything leading up to it isn’t quite sound in execution
  • A move the final boss used, blowing up the home planet of some random guy on my 3DS friends list
  • That cheesy-ass effect during the final boss where the 3DS camera captures my own face and shows it appearing through the opened rift into the “celestial realm”

The stuff I did not like at all:

  • Developers having a rare opportunity to go back to their flawed game to fix it up, and leaving so many things shoddy and broken
  • Nice music getting overextended and interrupted
  • Boring, old-fashioned flat maze dungeons
  • Reliance on cliched story and characters, as if it weren’t lazy to knowingly “celebrate” these cliches
  • Thoughtlessly-implemented features, things done arbitrarily without any strong design goal
  • Constant journal updates about nothing, which break up the gameplay
  • Frequent and bloated cutscenes, also halting gameplay; no sense of “less is more”
  • Repetition in later chapters
  • Asset reuse, crossing the line from “unfortunate-but-understandable cost-cutting” into “insulting” by the time the player reaches Dimension’s Hasp
  • Contrived bullshit storytelling

These are not balanced lists. Bravely Default is unmistakably a weak game. Its best features are the ones that make it over faster, and it’s a great reminder to not trust a Director’s Cut when a game couldn’t be done right the first time around. Don’t buy it unless you believe Final Fantasy V was the best game you ever played. If you do think that, consider replaying it, because it probably wasn’t all that great either.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.
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